Hiding in the name of national security

Hiding in the name of national security

RTI applications processed by the defence ministry in 2019-20 fell by more than 16% from the previous year’s tally

Venkatesh Nayak wakes up every morning thinking someone somewhere is hiding something.

Barely two months ago, the central government trimmed the list of security and intelligence organisations partially excluded from the RTI Act, from 26 to 25. Now, the newly created Department of Military Affairs is seeking to add the Army, Navy and the Air Force to this list, to protect national security better. Citing anonymous officials, the media has reported on the hushed consultations taking place within government. The details of the proposal to further weaken this citizen-empowering law remain out of public sight.

The credit for expanding the exclusion list from the original 18 to 24, by adding organisations like the CBI, NIA and NATGRID goes to the UPA, which initially championed the RTI. Now, these agencies are in the news often, as willing accomplices in the ruling dispensation’s attempts to intimidate political opponents and curb citizens’ voices of dissent. The gross abuse of fundamental rights resulting from such operations belies the very oath their functionaries took to preserve and protect the law of the land.

In all fairness, it must be acknowledged, in 2007, the UPA discussed and discarded a similar proposal to insulate the three defence forces from the RTI Act. The exemptions listed in Section 8 of the law were found adequate for protecting all legitimate public interests that require safeguarding — the foremost being the sovereignty, territorial integrity and the defence interests of the country.

Data published by the Central Information Commission (CIC) shows that RTI applications processed by the defence ministry in 2019-20 fell by more than 16% from the previous year’s tally. The three defence forces accounted for just over a third of the nearly 71,000 RTIs the ministry received in 2019-20. Less than 2% of the rejected RTIs were escalated to the CIC through appeals. Many of these are about recruitment, promotions, transfers, disciplinary proceedings and other service-related matters, filed by serving or retired personnel. The exemptions designed to protect national security and defence interests were invoked in only 0.22% of the RTIs processed during this period.

In 2016, while entertaining a similar exclusion request from the Strategic Forces Command (SFC), the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), the nodal agency for implementing the RTI Act, identified three eligibility tests that must be satisfied. These are: a) the number of RTIs in which information was disclosed or denied; b) samples of RTIs having a bearing on national security and/or intelligence gathering; and c) orders passed by the CIC or courts which might be hampering the agency’s functioning.

Official records disclosed under the RTI Act relating to SFC’s application show that it was being troubled by a grand total of 10 RTIs received since inception. Four had already been rejected and six were under process when the SFC moved DoPT. Neither the CIC nor the courts had passed any order requiring the disclosure of information that would obstruct SFC’s work.

Nevertheless, the proposal was mooted by the then defence minister, discussed and recommended by a committee of secretaries and approved by the Prime Minister. Until this decision was officially notified I, for one, was not even aware that the SFC, which is in charge of our nuclear arsenal, existed.

To the best of my knowledge, neither the CIC nor the courts have directed disclosure of any sensitive information held by the military till date. If anything, they have always deferred to the military’s judgement in withholding access to national security-related information.

Unfortunately, both the UPA and the NDA have always curbed the scope of the people’s right to know by tinkering with the RTI Act negatively. The promise of ‘maximum governance’ can be achieved if there is greater transparency and accountability in government. An important step in this direction will be to organise a meaningful public consultation on the current exclusion proposal, instead of treating it as a sarkari secret.

Meanwhile, the Department of Military Affairs, which does not have a website yet, could work with the defence ministry to give wide publicity to those parts of the Rafale fighter aircraft purchase deal that are fit to be disclosed under the RTI Act, before the investigations launched in France end up throwing egg on India’s face.

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